National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Vortograph Alvin Langdon Coburn (artist)
British, born United States, 1882 - 1966
Vortograph, 1917
gelatin silver print
image: 26.67 × 20.96 cm (10 1/2 × 8 1/4 in.)
Patrons' Permanent Fund
Not on View
From the Tour: Selected Photographs from the Collection
Object 10 of 15

Born in Boston, Alvin Langdon Coburn began to make photographs in 1898. He studied first with his distant cousin, the eccentric photographer F. Holland Day, and later with Edward Steichen as well as the painter Arthur Wesley Dow. Elected a member of Alfred Stieglitz's Photo-Secession, he quickly achieved renown for his cityscapes of New York, London, and Venice and his portraits of such distinguished figures as George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, and William Butler Yeats.

Like many photographers associated with Stieglitz, Coburn by 1910 sought to shed the romanticism of the pictorial movement and bring photography more in step with abstract painting and sculpture. He made photographs looking down from the tops of tall buildings to explore the use of flattened perspective and geometric patterning. During World War I he became involved with the Vorticists, a group of British artists, including Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, who sought to construct a dynamic visual language as abstract as music.

After experimenting with multiple exposures, Coburn in 1916 invented a kaleidoscope-like instrument with three mirrors clamped together, which when fitted over the lens of a camera would reflect and fracture the image. Pound dubbed the device a "Vortescope" and the resulting photographs "Vortographs." When Coburn exhibited 18 Vortographs in London in 1917, with an introduction by Pound, they created a sensation and were debated in the press for several months.

Widely celebrated as the first consciously created abstract photographs, Coburn's Vortographs are exceptionally rare. Many, like this one, appear to exist in only one print. This work, with its dynamic arrangement of forms, succinctly illustrates, as Pound noted, how Coburn's Vortographs leapt beyond the "stale and suburban" style of pictorialism, freed the camera from the representation of reality, and brought photography on a par with modern abstract painting.

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